FRANKFORT — A report by two leading child advocacy groups on Thursday gave Kentucky a failing grade in protecting the legal rights of abused kids.
Kentucky was one of eight states to earn a D and one of 15 to earn a D or an F. The state's score was due, in part, to lack of a requirement that attorneys be trained before they are appointed to represent children in court and for failure to require that representation continue through appeals.
The report, "A Child's Right to Counsel," showed that some states had improved since a similar 2007 report. Kentucky was not one of them.
Since that report, 33 percent of states strengthened laws guaranteeing a child's right to legal representation. In the 2009 report, 11 states earned an A or an A+.
The report was written by First Star, a non-profit child advocacy group in Washington, D.C., and the Children's Advocacy Institute of the University of San Diego School of Law.
Christina Riehl, a staff attorney for the Children's Advocacy Institute, said that in spite of budget problems, "states of all different sizes have done well. Every child can be represented by a capable attorney."
Kentucky's low grade came as no surprise to child advocates who for decades have pushed for changes.
While Kentucky does provide voluntary training for court-appointed attorneys, called guardians ad litem, it is not mandatory, and there are no checks on the competency of court-appointed attorneys, said David Richart of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families in Louisville.
Richart has written five reports calling for changes in the way the state handles legal representation for children and parents accused of abusing and neglecting them.
"You could fall asleep during the training and sign on and say that you have completed the training," he said. "To me, there is no accountability in how that training is conducted."
Another problem with Kentucky's system is that only a few jurisdictions give attorneys funding to pursue an appeal for a child.
Robert Heleringer, a Louisville lawyer who has been a guardian ad litem for more than 30 years, said it's difficult to find competent lawyers to take these cases because the pay is so low — typically $250 to $500. The last time guardians ad litem got a pay raise was in the 1980s.
Heleringer, a former state legislator, said concerns about escalating costs have kept the legislature from approving the pay raise.
"Before we can make people do the training, they may want to raise their pay," Heleringer said.
Richart said he has proposed that those who are certified to become guardians ad litem be eligible for a pay raise. He also would like to see legal counsel appointed at the first court hearing. Typically, lawyers aren't appointed to represent parents until the second hearing.
In Washington on Thursday, child advocates said they hoped the report would give advocates and legislators ammunition to change state laws and improve the legal system for children. The groups are also pushing for more states to look at forgiving student loans for lawyers who become guardians ad litem.
"There simply aren't enough lawyers to do the kind of work that we're asking for," Riehl said.